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Two Ways to Stretch the Seasons

Early garden bed in front of house

In March we had May weather, and now we are having March weather. We gardeners know that the weather is always unpredictable but this year Mother Nature is really keeping us on our toes. I confess. I could not resist the lure; I direct-seeded greens in my Early Garden during that March heat wave. Then what?

The soil was cool enough that my seeds, radishes and lettuces, did not germinate very quickly. By the time they did the weather had changed with temperatures in the 30s or even lower at night and still no rain. One of the virtues of the Early Garden is that it is right in front of the house where I can keep it watered. Regular watering is essential to get seeds to germinate.

However, with such cool temperatures and brisk breezes I realized that I really needed to protect those newly germinated seeds, even though they are very hardy. A floating row cover was what I needed. Row covers are available at most garden centers; I got mine at Shelburne Farm and Garden. I bought a 5 by 25 foot package of fabric, but you can also buy row covers that come with metal hoops and staples to hold the row cover firmly to the ground.

See how light the floating row cover is.

My row cover is very light, but it is wide enough to cover my planting bed doubled over and laid flat, but loosely enough to give growing plants a little room. Instead of using staples or other kinds of tacks designed for the purpose, I  used rocks, some old bricks and a length of wood to hold my doubled row cover in place. It is not very pretty, but I have lots of rocks, and broken bricks and even lengths of lumber lying about.

I did water the bed before I laid down the row cover, but this fabric is permeable. Rain, sun and air will go through it. As will any watering I might have to do if this dry weather continues. Row covers do come in a range of weights. All are permeable, but the heavier weights allow less sunlight to penetrate.

Row covers have benefits other than protection from the cold. They do help warm the soil, and protect the soil from washing away during a heavy rain. They also protect plants from insects like flea beetles and aphids and the damage they inflict. For this reason some crops can be grown under row covers almost until harvest. In that case, the row covers can be lifted to give the growing plant more room. You can drape the fabric over wire hoops, ones you buy or ones you make yourself out of heavy gauge wire, or straitened out wire hangers. Just remember these are floating row covers and they do not really need the support of a hoop at all. The lightest weight of row cover is sufficient for insect protection.

Row cover doubled - for now

I am also hoping that by using row covers I will foil the rabbits who ate a good portion of my garden last year. We’ll see.

I do not expect to use my row covers all season. However, as they protect the seedlings from frost, cold and wind in spring, so they can protect mature crops from frost in the fall, extending the season on both ends.

At the same time I was direct seeding one bed outdoors, I also started seeds indoors. By now I thought I would be able to transplant them into the garden. However, the weather has been so unpleasant that I have been timid about doing this. I brought them in and out of the house for a few days for the regular hardening off process, but then realized that I could put them out in my very makeshift cold frame.

We put the cold frame together last spring, using extra cement blocks we had and a Plexiglas skylight that was damaged in shipping when we built the Cottage Ornee. The company sent a new skylight, but we got to keep the damaged one. It lay idle until last spring when it turned out to be perfect, if slightly eccentric, for a functional cold frame.

There hasn’t been much sun since the day I set the seedlings out in the cold frame. Even so temperatures are slightly warmer and the plants are protected from the brisk winds that have been blowing. I am hoping that within another week or two I will be able to transplant them into another bed in the Early Garden where a row cover will protect them from the rabbits!

It is easy to buy a cold frame kit these days, but it is also easy to create a makeshift arrangement even if you don’t have cement blocks or a skylight. Hay or straw bales can act as protective sides, covered with a window or two, depending on the size you choose. Just remember that the air inside a cold frame can get hot, and you will need to adjust the windows every day to let in some cooling air. You will also need to watch and water your seedlings every day or two.

When the weather is settled cold frames and row covers can be taken out of service. Unless you are still protecting plants from rabbits. ###

Between the Rows  April 7, 2012

 

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